Kazakhstan's leader on Friday called early presidential elections for April 3, an accelerated timetable that gives the country's weak opposition forces little time to prepare.

President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has ruled the sprawling Central Asian country since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, holds almost-unchallenged power and is virtually certain to win the vote.

Kazakhstan has never held an election deemed free and fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which the country chaired in 2010.

The parliament, in which all seats are held by Nazarbayev supporters, last month called for a referendum on extending the president's rule by at least another decade. But that move was ruled unconstitutional this week, and Nazarbayev said he supported eaerly elections.

Nazarbayev has tried to project a democratic image despite detractors accusing him of corruption and undemocratic practices. Some analysts said the early elections could be a strategy for him to fend off anti-authoritarian protests like those that broke out in Tunisia and Egypt this year.

It is unlikely that Kazakhstan's opposition can mount a vigorous challenge.

The leader of the Ak Zhol opposition party said it was not sure it would even put forth a candidate and another opposition group, Azat, will decide on a candidate only after a series of meetings, RIA Novosti said.

Despite the misgivings of Nazarbayev's critics, he is generally held in high esteem by the population of 16 million, and supporters credit him with ensuring stability and rising prosperity.

Kazakh authorities have in recent years been steadily installing a cult of personality. Most notably, parliament voted last year to name Nazarbayev "leader of the nation" — a title that gives him the right to approve important national and foreign policies after he retires and grants him lifetime immunity from prosecution for acts committed during his rule.

Kazakhstan is rich in oil and natural gas and is of strategic interest because it borders both Russia and China.